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The Invention of the Modern World 6.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


 By Alan Macfarlane.

IT WAS TOCQUEVILLE who first brought home to me the importance and peculiarity of the English class system.  As a French nobleman who had watched the Revolution in France, visited America, and married an English lady, he saw something which was almost invisible to most Englishmen. ‘Wherever the feudal system established itself on the continent of Europe it ended in caste; in England alone it returned to aristocracy. I have always been astonished that a fact, which distinguishes England from all modern nations and which can alone explain the peculiarities of its laws, its spirit, and its history, has not attracted still more than it has done the attention of philosophers and statesmen and that habit has finally made it as it were invisible to the English themselves…’ 

He then expands on the idea. ‘It was far less its Parliament, its liberty, its publicity, its jury, which in fact rendered the England of that date so unlike the rest of Europe than a feature still more exclusive and more powerful. England was the only country in which the system of caste had been not changed but effectively destroyed. The nobles and the middle classes in England followed together the same courses of business, entered the same professions, and, what is much more significant, inter-married. The daughter of the greatest noble in England could already marry without shame a “new” man.’ This system, and particularly the widening of the middle class, ‘with the English passes finally to America … Its history is that of democracy itself.’1

It was an observation made by many others. ‘The gentry, the squires, barons, feudal chiefs… kept in touch with the people, opened their ranks to talent, recruited to their number the pick of the rising commoners…’ The traditional integration of English social ranks, was ‘the very reverse of the situation in France where burgess and artisan, noble and peasant are separated by distrust and discord, where broadcloth and corduroy do, indeed, live cheek by jowl but with fear and rancour in their hearts…’2

Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, possible basket-maker.

This is a feature going back more than a thousand years. The outcome was confusion and competition. ‘The labourer is a possible lord. The lord is a possible basket-maker. Every man carries the English system in his brain, knows what is confided to him, and does therein the best he can. The chancellor carries England on his mace, the midshipman at the point of his dirk, the smith on his hammer, the cook in the bowl of his spoon; the postilion cracks his whip for England, and the sailor times his oars to “God save the King!” The very felons have their pride in each other’s English staunchness.’ Everything is possible – but at a price. ‘English history is aristocracy with the doors open. Who has courage and faculty, let him come in. Of course, the terms of admission to this club are hard and high.3 It was the insecurity and competition which drove the system – as it still does. ‘This peculiar national spirit nourished by our social system, in which the lowest may rise to the highest station and importance, is the true source of our national prosperity and greatness.’4

THE MODEL ANCIEN régime social structure has four legally separate strata: the blood nobility are the rulers and warriors, the clergy are the religious and literate group, the bourgeois are mainly town-dwellers who trade and manufacture and the peasants are illiterate workers in the fields. The English social structure from Anglo-Saxon times had none of these.

Nobility as it grew up over Europe was based on legal differences acquired by birth. The nobility were treated as a separate legal estate. Tocqueville as a nobleman noted the difference when he visited England. ‘The English aristocracy in feelings and prejudices resembles all the aristocracies of the world, but it is not in the least founded on birth, that inaccessible thing, but on wealth that everyone can acquire, and this one difference makes it stand, while the others [i.e. nobility in other countries] succumb either to the people or to the King.’5

The situation in England was analysed by Maitland for the medieval period. ‘Our law hardly knows anything of a noble or of a gentle class; all free men are in the main equal before the law.’6 The only legal privilege, which they shared with the rest of the population, was that they had the right to be judged by their peers – in their case other lords.

The French historian Marc Bloch describes how by the thirteenth century a true nobility, based on hereditary blood and legal differences was established in most of continental Europe (but not in England).  There may have been some parallel development in the eleventh to twelfth centuries, but then England took ‘a very different direction in the thirteenth century’. Bloch gives an account of the peculiarity of the aristocratic system in England, for ‘in the French or German sense of the word, medieval England had no nobility; that is to say that among the free men there was no intrinsically superior class enjoying a privileged legal status of its own, transmitted by descent. In appearance English society was an astonishingly egalitarian structure.’ ‘In short, the class of nobleman in England remained, as a whole, more a “social” than a “legal” class’. Although, naturally, power and revenues were as a rule inherited, and although, as on the continent, the prestige of birth was greatly prized, this group was too ill-defined not to remain largely open’ Status was based on wealth and land, not on blood and law as in France.7

UNDER THE ARISTOCRACY there was another status group  – the gentry. As the bridge between the large ‘middling sort’ and the non-exclusive aristocracy, they were in many ways the most important, distinctive and exceptional feature of English social structure. Again for purpose of brevity we can draw on French observers.

Tocqueville realized that the word ‘gentleman’ was a central key to a vast difference in England and France. He wrote ‘there is none more pregnant, nor containing within it so good an explanation of the difference between the history of England and that of the other feudal nations in Europe.’ He was puzzled by what caused the difference. ‘How is it that the word gentleman, which in our language denotes a mere superiority of blood, with you is now used to express a certain social position, an amount of education independent of birth; so that in the two countries the same word, though the sound remains the same, has entirely changed its meaning?’8 He muses further on the difference of words with a common derivation but which developed such different meanings. ‘”Gentleman” and “gentilhomme” evidently have the same derivation, but “gentleman” in England is applied to every well-educated man whatever his birth, while in France gentilhomme applies only to a noble by birth. The meaning of these two words of common origin has been so transformed by the different social climates of the two countries that today they simply cannot be translated, at least without recourse to a periphrasis.’9

Likewise Taine wrote, ‘I have been trying to get a real understanding of that most essential word “a gentleman”; it is constantly occurring and it expresses a whole complex of particularly English ideas. The vital question concerning a man always takes this form: “Is he a gentleman?” And similarly, of a woman “Is she a lady?” … In France we have not got the word because we have not got the thing, and those three syllables, in their English sense, sum of the whole history of English society’. He describes some of the radical differences between English gentleman and French gentilhomme. He believed that the essential nature of the English gentleman lies in his character. But for real judges the essential quality is one of heart. Speaking of a great nobleman in the diplomatic service, B—- told me “He is not a gentleman.” … For them a real “gentleman” is a truly noble man, a man worthy to command, a disinterested man of integrity, capable of exposing, even sacrificing himself for those he leads; not only a man of honour, but a conscientious man, in whom generous instincts have been confirmed by right thinking and who, acting rightly by nature, acts even more rightly from good principles.’10

The essence was that the gentleman had no special legal status. As Maitland wrote, ‘Below the barons stand the knights; the law honours them by subjecting them to special burdens; but still knighthood can hardly be accounted a legal status’. Thus he argues that ‘In administrative law therefore the knight is liable to some special burdens; but in no other respect does he differ from the mere free man.’11

So how does one come to be known as a gentleman? Saussure simplified it when he said ‘The term gentleman is usually given to any well-dressed person wearing a sword.’12 In fact if we look at William Harrison’s sixteenth century definition of a gentleman we can see how he gets this position.  ‘Whoseover studieth the laws of the realm, whoso abideth in the university giving his mind to his book, or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or, beside his service in the room of a captain in the wars or good counsel given at home, whereby his commonwealth is benefited, can live without manual labor, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for money have a coat and arms bestowed upon him by heralds (who in the charter of the same do of custom pretend antiquity and service and many gay things), and thereunto being made so good cheap, be called master, which is the title that men give to esquires and gentlemen, and reputed for a gentleman ever after.’ He continues that there is no loss to the Crown in this promotion ‘the gentleman being so much subject to taxes and public payments as is the yeoman or husbandman, which he likewise doth bear the gladlier for the saving of his reputation.’13

Thus you could tell an English gentleman by the outward marks, the house, the clothes, the education, the accent, self-confidence and general wealth and particularly by the fact of his profession and his earning a living without manual labour.  My whole education in boarding schools was founded on the effort to train me in the habits or habitus of a gentleman – so that one day I would be called ‘sir’ (the modern equivalent of ‘Master’) by my pupils and the College Porters at King’s College, Cambridge. If you lost these outward marks, if your wealth failed or you could no longer live as a gentleman, you sank.

WHEN WE MOVE to the ‘middling sort’, a host of different occupations and situations were muddled together, comprising perhaps nearly a half of the inhabitants of England in the five hundred years between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. These were not illiterate labourers, but small tradesmen, small landowners, small manufacturers. To select out of these another peculiar non-legal but important status, again pivotal in government and the social structure, let us look at the yeomanry.

The importance of this estate was clear to Adam Smith. He believed that ‘Those laws and customs so favourable to the yeomanry, have perhaps contributed more to the present grandeur of England, than all their boasted regulations of commerce taken together’. He believed that they provided the step between gentry and labourers. He talks of various advantages, geographical and other, which England enjoyed, ‘But what is of much more importance than all of them, the yeomanry of England are rendered as secure, as independent, and as respectable as law can make them.’14

Once again Harrison gives a useful description of the nature of this group. ‘Yeomen are those which by our law are called legales homines, freemen born English, and may dispend of their own free land in yearly revenue to the sum of 40s. sterling, or £6 as money goeth in our times…. This sort of people have a certain pre-eminence and more estimation than laborers and the common sort of artificers, and these commonly live wealthily, keep good houses, and travail to get riches. They are also for the most part farmers to gentlemen… or at the leastwise artificers; and with grazing, frequenting of markets, and keeping of servants… do come to great wealth, insomuch that many of them are able and do buy the lands of unthrifty gentlemen, and often, setting their sons to the schools, to the universities, and to the Inns of the Court, or otherwise leaving them sufficient lands whereupon they may live without labor do make them by those means to become gentlemen…’15

You became a yeoman through wealth which was then manifested in education, taste, house, food and clothing. Again it is clear that it is a fully ‘modern’ status, roughly ‘middle middle class’ in recent terminology. As with the aristocracy and gentry, we have a status group which is dependent on material success for esteem. They gain and keep their position through their relatively strong control over the means of production by landholding, manufacture and trade. The wealth from this activity is converted into status for their sons.

WHEN WE TURN to what we would now call the ‘lower middle class and working class’ – and was for long called ‘artificers and labourers’ – Harrison describes them as follows. ‘The fourth and last sort of people in England are day laborers, poor husbandmen, and some retailers (which have no free land), copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brickmakers, masons etc.….This fourth and last sort of people, therefore, have neither a voice nor authority in the commonwealth, but are to be ruled and not to rule other; yet they are not altogether neglected, for in cities and corporate towns, for default of yeomen, they are fain to make up their inquests of such manner of people. And in villages they are commonly made churchwardens, sidemen [assistants to the churchwardens], aleconners [inspectors of ale] now and then constables, and many times enjoy the name of headboroughs.’16

Small craftsmen and shop-keepers were significant in number, but more numerous were the husbandmen and labourers. The peasant bound to his holding and the soil is unknown in England. What we have are people who have only a very little of their own land, or none at all, and work for others – husbandmen and labourers. The history of this group is one of the most intriguing developments in England

Anglo-Saxon society had known slaves, but from at least the thirteenth century English law did not recognize the status of slave – that is of a human being who was totally without legal rights in relations to others, to be bought and sold as a chattel, or even maimed or killed.

The classic account is by F.W.Maitland, drawing on both his studies of medieval court records, court rolls and legal treatises.  He notes that villeinage or serfdom means both a type of landholding and a personal status and that in relation to everyone except his lord, a villein or serf is legally like any other. He writes that ‘The same word villeinagium is currently used to denote both a personal status and a mode of tenure’. ‘Villeinage’ is a tenure as well as a status. ‘It is very possible, as Bracton often assures us, for a free man to hold in villeinage…’17

Maitland describes how. ‘The serf’s position in relation to all men other than his lord is simple: – he is to be treated as a free man. When the lord is not concerned, criminal law makes no difference between bond and free, and apparently the free man may have to do battle with the bond. A blow given to a serf is a wrong to the serf.’ Furthermore, ‘in relation to men in general, the serf may have land and goods, property and possession and all appropriate remedies.’ Serfs own chattels and can make wills and contracts – their condition even in relation to their particular lord is ‘unprotected, rather than rightless.’18

Maitland describes the ease with which serfs may gain liberty and notes that ‘Even the great distinction between bound and free is apt to appear in practice rather as a distinction between tenures than as a distinction between persons’. By the thirteenth century ‘freehold and villeinhold’ were already becoming difficult to ascertain. In fact, many people may not have been certain whether they were serfs or not. Extents and surveys are not very careful to separate the personally free from personally unfree, it is highly probably that large numbers of men did not know on which side of the legal gulf they stood.19

Thus English serfs ‘are unfree, but we must not call them slaves, they are not rightless; the law does not treat them as things, it treats them as persons’.20 ‘As regards mankind at large the serf so far from being a mere thing is a free man’, and  ‘We hesitate before we describe the serf as rightless even as against his lord’.21

The position is anomalous. A serf was like an indentured or permanent servant – a condition from which a person could not escape without release, but as much a contract as a status. When the troubling problem of slavery in the New World came up,when they were brought to England they were treated in a similar way to the medieval serf. It was generally agreed that ‘Slaves cannot breathe in England, if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free; they touch our country, and their shackles fall’.22 Or as Chamberlayne wrote in the later seventeenth century, ‘Foreign slaves in England are none, since Christianity prevails.’ Yet what happened if foreign slaves were brought to the country? The same ambiguous status was found – free but bound. Foreign slaves automatically become ‘free’, but were bound as perpetual servants to the master.23

In such an ambiguous category, where the serf or villein had been free in all relations except to his master, it was possible for the master to end the contract, just as he might dismiss a servant. The extraordinarily rapid disappearance of serfdom in England in the fifteenth century, which has long puzzled historians, is explicable only if we realize that it was a contractual, inter-personal, tie, not a status. After the labour shortages caused by the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century, lords found it impossible to hold onto their serfs, who were desired and protected by other lords, and either let them go or allowed the serf condition to vanish and their workers to become ‘free’ labourers.

By the time Harrison wrote in the middle of the sixteenth century he could say ‘As for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay, such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become so free of condition as their masters, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them…’24

MOST SOCIETIES HAVE a sharply tapered social structure, with a tiny elite and a huge mass of the poor. England had a different shape, more like a bell, with a small aristocracy, a large ‘middling class’ and then a working class of about the same size. Gregory King estimated that nearly half of the population in 1688 were above the level of workers and the poor.25 As we see in India or China today, the growth of a large, prosperous, middle class is both a cause and consequence of capitalist modernity. It is a feature of England as we can see it in Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales, back as far back as the fourteenth century  and well before. As Freeman put it in relation to the thirteenth century ‘the great middle class of England is rapidly forming; a middle class not, as elsewhere, confined to a few great cities, but spread, in the form of a lesser gentry and a wealthy yeomanry, over the whole face of the land.’26

Since it was wealth alone, rather than birth-given blood ties and legal privilege, which ensured prestige and respect, the English, like the Americans, were obsessed with making money. Emerson from America noted that ‘There is no country in which so absolute a homage is paid to wealth. In America, there is a touch of shame when a man exhibits the evidences of large property, as if, after all, it needed apology. But the Englishman has pure pride in his wealth, and esteems it a final certificate.’27 Or as Saussure commented earlier  ‘A sign that they are very fond of wealth is that as soon as you mention anyone to them that they do not know, their first inquiry will be, “Is he rich?” In this country one is esteemed for one’s wealth more than for anything else. It is true that riches are accounted happiness everywhere, but more particularly here’. The women were equally interested in money: ‘I have told you that I find men interested in money matters; the women are just as much so.’28

It was obvious that climbing the social ladder required wealth. Defoe had written ‘Wealth, howsoever got, in England makes Lords of mechanics, gentlemen of rakes. Antiquity and birth are needless here. Tis impudence and money makes a peer’.29 As a result, as Tocqueville noted ‘In all countries it is bad luck not to be rich. In England it is a terrible misfortune to be poor. Wealth is identified with happiness and everything that goes with happiness; poverty, or even a middling fortunes spells misfortune and all that goes with that. So all the resources of the human spirit are bent on the acquisition of wealth. In other countries men seek opulence to enjoy life; the English seek it, in some sort, to live.’ Tocqueville believed that the desire for wealth helped explain English success. ‘Take into account the progressive force of such an urge working for several centuries on several millions of men, and you will not be surprised to find that these men have become the boldest sailors and the most skillful manufacturers in the world’.30

As Adam Smith also put it ‘Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society which he has in view’.31 The aim was superiority – to feel higher up the ladder than others. ‘The French wish not to have superiors. The English wish to have inferiors. The Frenchman constantly raises his eyes above him with anxiety. The Englishman lowers his beneath him with satisfaction.’32

In order to gain and retain that notoriously slippery substance called wealth, no barriers of law could be allowed to be an obstacle. As Voltaire noted in relation to commerce in England ‘…and indeed a Peer’s Brother does not think Traffic beneath him. When the Lord Townshend was Minister of State, a Brother of his was content to be a City Merchant; and at the Time that the Earl of Oxford govern’d Great-Britain, his younger Brother was no more than a Factor in Aleppo, where he chose to live, and where he died.’33 However, around the same time, Montesquieu writing of France noted that ‘It is contrary to the spirit of monarchy to admit the nobility into commerce. The custom of suffering the nobility of England to trade is one of those things which have there mostly contributed to weaken the monarchical government.’34 Saussure wrote, ‘Merchants come after the clergy, and in England commerce is not looked down upon as being derogatory, as it is in France and Germany. Here men of good family and even of rank may become merchants without losing caste. I have heard of younger sons of peers, whose families have been reduced to poverty through the habits of extravagance and dissipation of an elder son, retrieve the fallen fortunes of their house by becoming merchants and working energetically for several years.’35

The result is a paradox. English social structure was and still is very hierarchical, in the sense that distinctions of ‘class’ matter a great deal and much of most people’s life is concerned with minor differences in food, drink, housing, cars and education, which will elevate them or their children, in the constant game of ‘keeping up with’ or even surpassing a neighbour: ‘Apparent equality, real privileges of wealth, greater perhaps than in any country of the world.’36

So it is noticeable that much of English satire from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde has been founded on this competitive game of class. Yet the game is so fascinating and absorbing only because England had a modern, open, system based on merit, ability and a good deal of strategy and chance – a meritocracy of sorts.

As Roy Porter put it describing the eighteenth century ‘…though the social hierarchy was inegalitarian and oozing privilege (some of it hereditary), it was neither rigid nor brittle. There was continual adaptiveness to challenge and individual mobility, up, down and sideways. More than in other nations, money was a passport through social frontiers’.37

Thus while it is arguable as stated by George Orwell that ‘England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’. Yet he can also write ‘The whole English-speaking world is haunted by the idea of human equality, and though it would be simply a lie to say that either we or the Americans have ever acted up to our professions, still, the idea is there, and it is capable of one day becoming a reality.’38

It is a tough game. ‘An Englishman shows no mercy to those below him in the social scale, as he looks for none from those above him; any forbearance from his superiors surprises him, and they suffer in his good opinion.’ It is also a game of pretence – the invention of status through a conjuring trick. ‘All the families are new, but the name is old, and they have made a covenant with their memories not to disturb it.’  There was constant re-invention to fit the mobility. ‘But the analysis of the peerage and gentry shows the rapid decay and extinction of old families, the continual recruiting of these from new blood. The doors, though ostentatiously guarded, are really open, and hence the power of the bribe. All the barriers to rank only whet the thirst, and enhance the prize.’39 The game of invention of ancestry with the selling of coats of arms, which Harrison had noticed the heralds playing in the middle of the sixteenth century,  has been going on for many hundreds of years.

There is always the danger of slipping since nothing is permanently guaranteed. There is much about this in English novels.  Yet there is also the chance of scrambling up – nicely described by Stendhal. ‘Society being divided as by the rings of a bamboo, everyone busies himself with trying to climb into the class above his own and the whole effort of that class is put into preventing him from climbing.’40

There was above all a belief in the ‘from log cabin to White House’, or from coal-mining grandparents to marrying the heir to the throne in the contemporary saga of Prince William, the heir to the throne of England. This is the ‘American dream’ and now the dream in India and China. It has been a long dreamt in England, as in the story of Dick Whittington and his cat, or Jack and the Beanstalk. Nowadays it is ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ who epitomizes this dream.

The aspirations and reality are described in the nineteenth century. ‘Every weaver’s son strives to be a Peel, or a father of Peels; every grocer’s, a Gladstone; every operative’s, a Cobden. In our social and political system there is nothing to make such a dream impossible or extravagantly improbable, and therefore he dreams it, and lives in a struggle to realise it.’ Laing believed that ‘The Continental man in the same class and position, would be mad indeed if he expected, by his utmost efforts and good luck to attain a higher social position, or greater social influence than what belongs to his original calling.’41

This was based on reality. ‘With us in every village and town how many instances we see of men rising by industry and good conduct, from very small beginnings, from a very low place in the social body, to such wealth, influence, and importance, that government employments or any situations the Church or the learned professions could offer, are inconsiderable objects in comparison! We hear every day of common labourers becoming great manufacturers or opulent merchants … this principle of progress from the lowest to the highest rank, is wanting in the Continental structure of society.’42

The effect of this is that the ruling groups, basically the upper middle class, were constantly being refreshed. This is described by Huizinga. The ruling class never disappeared but was reincarnated: ‘a process which had taken place over and over again in the history of this country, where not blood but success, usually though not always measured in money, had always been the qualification for membership of the ruling class. Not that just any kind of money constituted an acceptable entrance fee; it had to be what Belloc called “cooked money” and not “raw money”, its owners had to have had it long enough to learn to adapt themselves to the aristocratic style of the blood. But only this style of the English ruling class was hereditary; its personnel had been constantly renewed and its economic basis reinforced by the absorption of new generations of the socially successful, men who possessed sufficient economic power really to be able to rule and sufficient modernity of spirit to preserve the policy of this class from fossilisation and thus to safeguard its prestige.’43

The central fact is that there are no formal legal statuses, but an innumerable set of small gradations which make it possible to move up and down. Yet it is impossible to be quite certain where one is or who is above or below. Is a poor clergyman higher or lower than a middle farmer? Is a middling lawyer lower or higher than an army officer? Is a butcher higher than a baker? Is someone who ‘comes home’ from Jamaica or Australia or India with a considerable fortune fit to be absorbed into polite society? Is someone who joins some dissenting church to be spurned? It goes on forever.

The excellent accounts of the numerous ladders, and especially the importance of the large middle class are given by Laing. ‘It is the common theme of foreign travellers who visit England, and of many superficial observers among ourselves, that the social state of the English nation is a monstrous junction of boundless wealth, extravagance, and luxury above, and of utter destitution, misery, and suffering below. They look only at the upper and lower strata of the social mass, and do not perceive that all between the two is densely filled up with incomes and earnings of every amount and every fractional difference, from the highest, the thousands or tens of thousands a year, down to zero. There is no vacuum in the mass between the top and the bottom, as in the social state of the Continent.’44

The result is constant discontent – or at least striving, sometimes called the protestant ethic by Weber and interestingly linked to wider anxiety by Michael Walzer, not so much anxiety about religious salvation as social salvation.45 ‘In English life, men are never contented and happy unless in the struggle to attain some higher social position than they are in, and which the public confers. The merchant, the tradesman, the working-man, however easy in his circumstances and prospects according to his position in life, could not sit down, like the amiable contented German in the same station, to talk, and sip, and puff away three or four hours daily…’46

THERE IS A danger of being too optimistic. The English may have been unusually affluent and middle class, but the difference, as in India today, between the aristocrats with their huge houses and parks, and the burdened labourer – especially during the industrial revolution –  was immense. One should never forget accounts of the working class by Engels in Mnchester, or the searing account of Taine when he visited Liverpool.

In the neighbourhood of Leeds Street there are fifteen or twenty streets with ropes stretched across them where rags and underwear were hung out to dry. Every stairway swarms with children, five or six to a step, the eldest nursing the baby; their faces are pale, their hair whitish and tousled, the rags they wear full of holes, they have neither shoes nor stockings and they are all vilely dirty. Their faces and limbs seemed to be encrusted with dust and soot. In one street alone there must have been about two hundred children sprawling or fighting. You draw near a house, look in, and in the half-light of a passage, see mother and grown daughter crouching, wearing little more than a chemise. What rooms! A threadbare slip of oilcloth on the floor, sometimes a big sea-shell or one or two plaster ornaments; the old, idiot grandmother crouches in a corner; the wife is engaged in trying to mend some wretched rags of clothes; the children tumble over each other. The smell is that of an old-clothes shop full of rotting rags…. A really horrible detail is that these streets are regular and seem to be quite new: the quarter is probably a rebuilt one, opened up by a benevolent municipality: so that this was an example of the best that can be done for the poor.47

The system was Darwinian and merciless, a struggle for survival and hence there is something in Marx’s observation that Darwin projected onto nature the social struggle he witnessed around him. Yet it was in this class structure, as in other things, that the marked modernity of England flowered. The English working class, as Edward Thompson noted, is very unusual, scarcely believable to others, one peculiarity of a peculiar history. The working class was surprisingly open, often self-confident, and did not see itself, much to Marx’s irritation, as united in its consciousness of itself as a class.48

THERE IS ONE final oddity worth noting. This was an apparent absence of strongly enforced ‘codes of honour’ amongst the bulk of the population. Although people wanted to be honoured for what they had achieved and for what they were, the respect was diffused over the society as a whole and did not have to be shown in a highly deferential face‑to‑face rela­tionship. As compared to those societies in Mediterranean Europe and elsewhere known to anthropologists as ‘honour and shame’ cultures, there is in fact a curious lack of emphasis on ‘re­spect’ on ‘honour’ and on ‘deference’.

Leaving on one side the possible exception of a few courti­ers and the highest aristocracy, the constant competition for the maintenance of personal honour, with its ramifications of wounded pride, duelling, taunts, gossip, the flaunting of male power, the insidious danger of the undermining of honour through assaults on the women attached to men, all this is largely miss­ing in the majority of the population through most of English history. Even at the level of Jane Austen’s novels, it is difficult to speak of an ‘honour and shame’ culture, and certainly it is little in evidence for the villages about which we know. It does not seem that this is a society held together by those face‑to‑face competitions for honour, the equality of honourable men and their superiority over their weaker clients, which is characteristic of so many socie­ties. For example, I know of no instances, as one would find in many societies, of families killing or maiming men who have courted their daughters or sisters and hence dishonoured them.

The honour that is present is not of a familistic nature. It is the kind of honour that is needed in a commercial society. It is basically concerned with behaving honourably, that is to say being truthful, just, uncorrupt, keeping one’s contracts and pledges, not being deceitful, being fair‑minded. The honourable Magistrate or Judge, the honourable merchant, the honourable clergyman, is not one who jealously guards an internal store of a precious commodity which is constantly under threat. Rather, an individual appealed for recognition of his (or her) character to a wider public. He showed him­self to be sincere and trustworthy, for these were the characteristics which both won respect and gave people confidence needed in the numerous contracts on which the society and economy depended. Destroy a man’s reputation, and he was likely to spiral downwards. But the way to do this was not to suggest that he was not brave, aggressive, virile, but rather that he could not be trusted ‑ a liar or a cheat. Likewise, to destroy a woman’ reputation was better achieved through attacks on her probity, intelligence and cultural performance than to attack her sexual status.

A video of the lecture on which this chapter is based:


2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.Chapter 6 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1. Tocqueville, Ancien, 88, 89, 90.
  2. Taine, Notes, 144, 162.
  3. Emerson, English, 80, 134.
  4. Laing, Observations, 462.
  5. Tocqueville, Journeys, 43.
  6. Maitland, History, I, 408; Freeman, Growth, 92ff, is a strong statement of the total absence of a ‘nobilité’ of the continental type.
  7. Bloch, Feudal, II, 326, 329, 330-1, 331.
  8. Tocqueville, Memoir, II, 224.
  9. Tocqueville, Journeys, 52.
  10. Taine, Notes, 144-5.
  11. Maitland, History, I,  410-1.
  12. Saussure, Foreign, 212.
  13. Harrison, Description, 113-4.
  14. Smith, Wealth, I, 415, 443.
  15. Harrison, Description, 117-8.
  16. Harrison, Description, 118.
  17. Maitland, History, I, 231, 359.
  18. Maitland History, I, 419, 419, 417.
  19. Maitland, History, I, 417, 408, 374, 431.
  20. Maitland, Consitutional, 33.
  21. Maitland, History, I, 415, 430.
  22. William Cowper in Quotations, 124.
  23. Chamberlayne, Present, 339, 182.
  24. Harrison, Description, 118.
  25. The table is in Allen, Industrial, 50.
  26. Freeman, First Essays, 43.
  27. Emerson, English, 118.
  28. Saussure, Foreign, 207-8.
  29. Quoted in McLynn, Crime, 56.
  30. Tocqueville, Journeys, 105.
  31. Smith, Wealth, I, 475.
  32. Tocqueville, Journeys, 60.
  33. Voltaire, Letters, 55.
  34. Montesquieu, Spirit, I, 327.
  35. Saussure, Foreign, 215-6.
  36. Tocqueville, Journeys, 79.
  37. Porter, Eighteenth, 341.
  38. Orwell, Lion, 52, 119.
  39. Emerson, English, 231, 150, 151.
  40. Stendhal in Wilson, Strange, 164.
  41. Laing, Observations, 462.
  42. Laing, Observations, 308.
  43. Huizinga, Confessions, 105.
  44. Laing, Observations, 296.
  45. Walzer, Revolution.
  46. Laing, Observations, 461-2.
  47. Taine, Notes, 225-6.
  48. Thompson, ‘Peculiarities’, 312, 347.

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